After it was over, when the confetti had carpeted the court in the Superdome in New Orleans in the wake of Kentucky's 67--59 win over Kansas in the NCAA title game on Monday night, the young Wildcats had answered the two biggest questions hanging over their scrutinized season: Yes, a team that started three freshmen and two sophomores could resist cracking under the pressure of their sport's grandest stage and meet the outsized expectations of their fan base. And yes, their 53-year-old coach, John Calipari, could win "the big one." Just one remained: Would Calipari cut a piece of the net as a souvenir of his long-awaited title? He hadn't climbed the ladder after the Wildcats won the South Regional in Atlanta the week before. "That was their time," Calipari said earlier in the week. "They don't need me waving a string around. This should be about the players."
This is an article from the April 9, 2012 issue
On Monday, it was about the players again, and they were magnificent. There was sophomore guard Doron Lamb, one of two key holdovers from last year's vaunted freshman class and the team's best shooter, hitting two straight three-pointers to kill a Jayhawks rally midway through the second half and finishing with a game-high 22 points. There was 6'10" freshman Anthony Davis, the elastic-limbed 19-year-old national player of the year, who displayed athletic gifts so otherworldly that he seemed to lack only a cape as he soared above the rim. Even though he scored just one field goal, he dominated in every other way, grabbing 16 rebounds and making three steals, including a spectacular snatch of an alley-oop pass intended for 7-foot Jeff Withey early in the first half. Davis also blocked six shots, tying the NCAA championship mark and bringing his season total to 186, a freshman record.
There was Davis's roommate, fellow freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, still six months shy of his 19th birthday, a player whose struggles with a stutter off the court belie his fluency on it. In addition to scoring 11 points, Kidd-Gilchrist made the biggest defensive play of the game: With Kansas down 63--57, Jayhawks guard Tyshawn Taylor went backdoor on the 6'7" Kidd-Gilchrist and tried a reverse. But the player Davis calls "our best finisher" scrambled and blocked his shot.
There was 6'9" sophomore Terrence Jones, who skipped the NBA draft last year after Kentucky was ousted by Connecticut in the Final Four because, he says, "I wanted to play in the final game of the season," adding nine points, seven rebounds and a defensive presence that made Kansas star Thomas Robinson struggle for each of his 18 points and 17 rebounds. "Every time Thomas caught the ball," said Withey, "he had three guys on him."
There was freshman point guard Marquis Teague, who helped ensure that Calipari didn't relive the nightmare ending of his last appearance in the title game. In 2008, also against the Jayhawks, Calipari's Memphis team lost 75--68 in overtime after squandering a nine-point lead with 2:12 left in regulation by missing 4 of 5 free throws down the stretch. When Kansas whittled a 16-point deficit to seven with 3:52 to go on Monday, Teague hit a critical trey a minute later and then added two free throws to stretch the lead to eight.
After Kansas guard Elijah Johnson's final three missed, Davis cradled the rebound and ran through exploding confetti to find his teammates. Later, he wrapped Kidd-Gilchrist in a sweaty bear hug and said, "I love you. This is what we came to Kentucky for."
In seizing the Wildcats' eighth NCAA title, and his first in 20 years as a college head coach, Calipari put to rest questions of whether his methodology of welcoming elite freshmen to campus in the summer and waving goodbye as they headed to the NBA draft in the spring could produce a champion. The question of whether his system is subverting the aims of higher education—a hot topic throughout the tournament—will no doubt remain open to debate.
Calipari says even he doesn't like the NBA bylaw that has come to define him and his programs, the so-called one-and-done rule that since '06 has mandated that a potential draftee be at least 19 and a year removed from high school. But it has been undeniably good for the brand that he has built in Lexington, which has become the locale for elite players filling their gap years. Calipari has been a head coach in the pros (two-plus seasons with the New Jersey Nets in the late 1990s), and he is as connected as anyone in the business. NBA stars work out on campus during their off-seasons. Celebrities like LeBron James and Jay-Z cheer from the sidelines. Most important, Calipari is unapologetic about putting his players before the program. Two years ago, when an unprecedented five Wildcats, four of them freshmen, went in the first round of the draft, Calipari declared it "the biggest day" in Kentucky hoops history. He drew heat from the fans and the media for his comment, but his stance hasn't changed. If Calipari thinks a player should turn pro, he'll push him out the door. "What's the option?" he asks. "Deceive a kid that he should stay when he should leave? I won't do that."
Calipari's perceived role as dean of an NBA finishing school is just one reason some root against him. There's also his track record: He and Rick Pitino are the only coaches to take three programs to the Final Four (Calipari took UMass in 1996, Memphis in 2008 and Kentucky in '11 and '12), but Calipari's first two appearances have been vacated. Four of the Minutemen's wins were erased from the record books because forward Marcus Camby received improper benefits from agents, and all 38 of Memphis's victories were negated after guard Derrick Rose was declared ineligible because of an invalid SAT score. Although Calipari was not personally implicated in either scandal, suspicion continues to surround his program. Former Indiana coach and current ESPN analyst Bob Knight is so disdainful of the team and its coach that he wouldn't even say Kentucky on air for most of the season, referring to the Wildcats as "that team from the SEC."
Indiana coach Tom Crean, a Calipari friend and confidant, says these "lightning rod issues" obscure an important point about Calipari. "This guy is one of the best coaches in college basketball," he says. "He gets talent to play very hard, and he makes talent better."
Davis played so hard this season that he impressed even Calipari. "A guard playing hard and him playing hard are two different things," says the coach. "He's in a mud-wrestling match [with opposing forwards] along with running hard, whereas the guards are just running." On the rare occasions Davis seemed to slow down, Calipari jumped on him. When he saw the big man jogging during a February game against Vanderbilt, Calipari yanked him to the bench and bellowed, "You don't jog this court! If you need a break, come out!"
Likewise Calipari never let up on Teague, another McDonald's All-American who was so hurried and turnover-prone in the early season that "you would have said we're going to have to play somebody else at point," says the coach. Every day in practice he barked at Teague to slow down, run the team and pick better spots for his own shots. To endure the tutoring, "you gotta be tough-skinned," says Teague, who averaged 4.8 assists and 2.5 turnovers in six tournament games. "Everything he's telling you, he's just trying to help."
"One thing about John, he doesn't back down," says Crean. "You don't ever get one over on him, you don't ever trick him. He is so good at dealing with high-level athletes, I don't think high-maintenance affects him. He goes right through that."
Calipari says the secret to getting young, elite players to play hard and unselfishly begins during recruiting. He doesn't make promises about playing time or touches, and he walks out of homes if a kid disrespects a parent or grandparent, "because they won't listen to me either," he says.
The key players during this championship campaign include six likely NBA draft picks—Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist are projected to go one-two, while Jones, Lamb, senior guard Darius Miller and Teague should also be selected—but they were as unselfish and as cohesive as they were talented. Even Louisville's Pitino, who has a frosty relationship with Calipari, said after losing 69--61 in last Saturday's semifinal, "I haven't always liked the Kentucky teams, but I really like this team because of their attitude and the way they play. They're a great group of guys."
The Wildcats led the nation in blocked shots (344), field-goal-percentage defense (37.4%) and scoring margin (16.8 points), but the stat Calipari liked to tout most was this: He had seven players who put up 20 points a game in high school, yet none of them averaged more than 9.3 shots this season. And all seven led the team in scoring at least once. But the best thing about this group? "These guys really like each other," he says.
In a group that by all accounts was without an alpha male, perhaps the most unselfish of all was Miller, whom freshman guard Sam Malone calls "the nicest guy on the team and one of the most popular people on campus." Miller is the last link to the regime before Calipari arrived, in 2009--10. The spring before the Maysville, Ky., native arrived in Lexington to play for then coach Billy Gillispie, the Cats were so far removed from their accustomed dominance that Miller's AAU teammate Shelvin Mack, a Butler signee, cracked, "At least I'm going to a top 20 program!"
Miller came off the bench as a freshman with Gillispie and then started 69 of 76 games as a sophomore and junior for Calipari, absorbing a new crop of superstar freshmen every year. ("No college player has played with more NBA players than him," says Calipari of Miller, who has had 40 teammates at Kentucky.) This year he had to adjust again, returning to a backup role to make room for Kidd-Gilchrist. "I didn't really have a problem with it," says Miller. "Coach said someone had to come off the bench, and it happened to be me."
Before the Wildcats played Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament final, Kidd-Gilchrist approached Calipari. "He said, 'Coach, we need Darius in the NCAA tournament, and he's not playing well right now. Let me come off the bench,'" recalls Calipari, who honored the request. "That is neat. That is one where I said to my staff, 'We're good.'"
The first signs that this team could be extraordinary were evident during summer pickup games at the Craft Center. With the NBA lockout in effect, Calipari had reached out to a number of pros—some former Wildcats, some not—and offered the use of Kentucky's facilities. On a few occasions the pros played open-run pickup games that the college players could join. In these sessions the callow Cats absorbed a few critical lessons.
"Playing against guys on that level, you've got to learn to share the ball and move it around because you can't beat them off the dribble as easy as you can with players on your level," says Teague. "That's when we learned how to play together." In one session, recalls Lamb, the Kentucky starters held court for four games, including two against an Oklahoma City Thunder contingent that included Nick Collison, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Nazr Mohammed and Russell Westbrook. "Beating pros four games straight means a lot," says Lamb. "We knew we had great players and a great team."
The Wildcats blitzed through their nonconference schedule, stumbling just once in a 73--72 loss at Indiana on Dec. 10. Around that time Calipari told his team the story of Michael Jordan's Breakfast Club. His Airness and several other Bulls would gather at Jordan's house early in the morning to get in a workout with his personal trainer before his chef whipped up a meal. Inspired, Kidd-Gilchrist started his own type of Breakfast Club during Christmas break, urging teammates to show up at the Craft Center at 6:30 a.m. for weights and extra shooting. Says Kidd-Gilchrist of that time, "I think we got a lot better as a team."
In late December, Kidd-Gilchrist sent Calipari a text asking to lead the team. But Calipari didn't want just one leader. "I like it to be like the geese fly," he says. "So Michael will lead, then sometimes Darius will, then Anthony and so on. I'm trying to teach every one of them to lead. Leadership is about everybody else, not yourself."
Calipari has had to learn that lesson, too. When he made his first Final Four with UMass, "it was about me," he says. "Now it's less about me and more about everybody else. I look back on my early coaching career: We did good, but I didn't do as good as I'm doing for the kids here now. I feel bad about that, but I didn't know any better. As I've gotten older, life has become easier, and we've won a whole lot more games when it has been about everybody else and not about me. When it's about the players first, they play for you."
When Calipari speaks of his legacy now, he doesn't mention titles or wins, though he is adamant about the legitimacy of the victories the NCAA vacated. ("We've been in four Final Fours," he says. "What, you going to tell the kids that played in those they didn't play all year?") He talks instead about relationships and his players' financial success. "I want my legacy to be that families' lives have changed through our relationship," he says. "[Kentucky] Senator Mitch McConnell said to me, 'How many guys leave off of this team, do you think?' I said, seven—five starters and two seniors. If we play well, they'll all have opportunities. He said, 'You're creating more millionaires than a Wall Street firm!' What if that number is 70 by the time I retire? How would you say I did? Because the cycle on those families, that cycle of poverty or whatever it may be, has just changed."
Before any of the Wildcats could cash in on future riches, before they could even claim the title so many observers had assumed they would win at the start of the tournament, they had to survive what was being called "the Kentucky Derby," a semifinal showdown with in-state rival Louisville, a scrappy, undersized team with a ferocious defense. Facing a gamelong press for the first time this season, the Cats fought their way through, shooting 57.1% and getting a dazzling performance from Davis, who had five blocks, 14 rebounds and 18 points (on 7-of-8 shooting), including a breathtakingly acrobatic alley-oop slam with 1:08 to go. As students in Lexington started to riot, student body president Micah Fielden urged restraint via Twitter: "Let's be smart and act like we've been here before." Davis, who rarely shows emotion, pointed to the court, furrowed his famous unibrow and shouted, "This is my s---!" After the game, Davis claimed he said, "This is my stage!" Either way, he owned the moment.
On Monday he owned it again, but he was happy to share it with his teammates. As the players gathered on the dais for the presentation of the Most Outstanding Player award—Davis became the first freshman recipient since Syracuse forward Carmelo Anthony in 2003—and the championship trophy, Lamb danced around, appearing to give bunny ears to school president Eli Capilouto. In the end Calipari couldn't contain himself either. After the last of his players had cut a piece of the net, he ascended a ladder with scissors in hand. This is what he had come to Kentucky for too.